The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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January 4, 2014

New schools feature ‘neighborhoods,’ distress buttons, water-bottle stations

JOPLIN, Mo. — Furniture is assembled and in place. Books have been shelved.

More than two and a half years after having been destroyed by the 2011 tornado, three new schools are ready for business.

The Joplin school district on Monday will permanently open Irving and Soaring Heights elementary schools and East Middle School. Administrators said the buildings — unlike any schools Joplin has seen before — were designed to be durable yet flexible, able to last for the next 100 years but adaptable to changing enrollment, technology and instructional methods.

The schools were designed with input from administrators, faculty, staff, students and parents. Assistant Superintendent Angie Besendorfer said the teams tried to adopt the viewpoint of a child, creating schools that would be “kid-friendly” with lots of colors, geometric shapes and textures.

“We don’t want our schools to be perfect to our taste as adults because they’re not for us,” she said.

NEW LEARNING SPACES

The schools’ designs reflect a manner of instruction that Besendorfer said will help prepare students for real-world settings by developing skills such as problem-solving and teamwork.

The three wings of Irving, for example, are arranged into “neighborhoods,” each with its own theme — space, park and pond.

Each neighborhood consists of an open space in the middle of the wing, around which the classrooms are built. The idea, Besendorfer said, is that teachers in each wing can bring their classes out into the neighborhood for collaborative projects and group activities.

There’s a similar arrangement at East, which is built for six student groups that will be divided by grade level. Students will spend most of their schoolday with their group, attending their core academic classes in their designated area of the school with a team of teachers, Besendorfer said. Collapsible walls and moveable doors can create open spaces for students and teachers to work together, she said.

Besendorfer said this approach will allow teachers to share resources and students will waste less time moving between classes.

Some students said they like this approach, as it means they will get to stay with their classmates throughout the day and won’t have to worry about being tardy to class.

“I especially like all the classrooms because we call them ‘homes,’ and in the middle there’s a ‘living room,’ and it’s where we can get together and talk about our homework or just hang out,” eighth-grader Sydney Alejandro said at a recent open house for the middle school.

The classrooms are built to encourage learning, with natural lighting and ergonomic furniture designed to help students remain focused and engaged, Besendorfer said.

“The hustle and bustle of the classroom is not about getting students to sit in their seat for seven hours,” she said.

John Brown, with the Kansas City-area firm Hollis + Miller Architects, said the schools are not designed for rows of desks facing a chalkboard. To try to reach students however they learn best, some classrooms are large, with long, built-in window seats; others are small with glass-paneled walls. Each school also has some sort of outdoor classroom or learning environment, he said.

“Not everybody learns the same way. Some students learn in group settings, and they’re more comfortable in large groups; some students like to just work by themselves,” Brown said. “Some students are visual; some students are tactile. What you’re seeing in schools now is creating multiple different types of spaces that can engage students differently.”

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